I was chatting to the log man as we unloaded chunks of dried beech into my driveway from his trailer. Usually he brings me ash, but ash is becoming harder to find now that ash dieback disease, imported into Ireland from Europe, is killing many of the nation’s trees. Our little home plantation, laid down five or six years ago, is not yet mature enough to keep us going for the whole winter, and we need help to make up the shortfall. So, beech it is this year.
“Not easy to get it now though,” he said to me, as we threw the logs into the growing pile. “And there’s a lot of demand this year. Everyone’s worried about the winter.” Given the likely lack of Russian gas across Europe, people are getting nervous and stockpiling heating fuel before autumn. We’ve been stocking up on winter logs this way for years. But the log man knows that his days of delivering little loads of cut timber to households like ours are probably numbered.
“I’ll just keep going till they tell me to stop,” he said. “It’ll happen soon enough.”
The Irish government is currently campaigning against households which burn turf or wood, the former on the grounds of CO2 emissions, and the latter on the grounds of air quality. As ever, the campaign is driven from Dublin, and mostly takes Dublin sensibilities into account. Rural households in Ireland have been burning turf and wood forever, with little significant impact on “air quality” — or at least, no impact comparable to that which Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” modernisation has had. Suddenly, though, the media is full of scientists armed with studies demonstrating how getting a fire going in your cottage in winter will lead to cancer and lung disease on a widespread scale.
This new tilt against household fireplaces is not just an Irish phenomenon: it is suddenly popping up everywhere. Woodstoves are, curiously, becoming the number one air pollution villain. Never mind mass car use, accelerating air travel or industrial pollution. Never mind the emissions caused by the massive increase in Internet server farms, which within just a few years could be using up an astonishing 70% of this country’s electricity. These days, if you want to demonstrate your social responsibility, you should be all aboard with the abolition of the traditional fireplace and its replacement with “green” alternatives.
Speaking as a former green myself, I’m not without sympathy for at least part of this argument. The mass burning of peat in power stations here, for example, has long been an ecological disaster; one which is, thankfully, coming to an end. Many peat bogs in Ireland have been ravaged over the centuries, and some are now being restored for wildlife, and for use as “carbon sinks”. This is certainly no bad thing. Humans recklessly burning anything in sight on a vast scale is not a story to be defended, no matter how hard some are currently trying.
Something else is happening here, though. The campaign against warming your own house with your own fire is not quite what it claims to be. Sometimes it looks more like a displacement activity, as if a government and a nation which has no interest in actually cutting its consumerist lust down to size is going for an easy target. But it is also something with more symbolism, more mythic meat, than any discussion about “carbon emissions” would suggest. The fireplace, whether our dessicated urban authorities know it or not, has a primal meaning, even in a world as divorced as ours from its roots and from the land.
In his short essay “Fireside Wisdom”, the uncategorisable John Michell suggested that the “displacement of the hearth or fireplace” from the home was one of the many reasons for the craziness of the modern world which his life had been spent playfully exploring. The fireplace at the centre of the home, he wrote, was both an ancient practicality and a device of “cosmological significance” across cultures and time: “Conversation is directed into the fire while dreams and images are drawn out of it.”
In the past, the act of sitting staring into the smoky fire with family or neighbours was the genesis of the folk tale and folk song which tied the culture together. Now we stare at digital fires hemmed into boxes manufactured by distant corporations who also tell us our stories. No song we can dream up around a real fireplace can compete with what these boxed fires can sell us. “Thus,” wrote Michell, “the traditional cosmology is no longer represented by its domestic symbols, and a new, secular, restless, uncentred world-view has taken its place.”
Focus, Michell explained, is “the Latin name for the central fireplace. The fire not only warms but, as a symbol, illuminates the corresponding images of a centre to each of our own beings and of a world-centre which is divine, eternal and unchanging.” Lose your fires, and you literally lose your focus as a culture. In this context, a government spokesman telling his population, as one minister here recently did, that they should “get over” their “nostalgic” attachment to the hearth fire and install ground source heat pumps instead is more than just a nod to efficiency. It is an assault on what remains of the home and its meaning. It is an attack on the cultural — even the divine — centre.
Not that you will get very far explaining that to your local MP.
“Not everyone can afford one of these fancy ground source pumps,” said the log man, as we emptied the last of the trailer. He was right, of course, and many of my neighbours, who at this time of year are hauling tractor trailers full of dried turf back from the bog, would be just as dismissive of the new dispensation. But this is not the real significance of the dying out of the household fire. The real significance is that it represents just the latest blow against the home as the centre of the universe: of the domestic as the cosmological, of the parlour as the place of story.
When you can no longer grow your own wood or cut your own turf to heat your own parlour, you are made that little bit more dependent on the matrix of government, technology and commerce that has sought to transmute self-sufficiency into bondage since the time of the Luddites. The justification for this attack on family and community sufficiency changes with the times — in 17th-century England, the enclosures were justified by the need for agricultural efficiency; today they are justified by the need for energy efficiency — but the attack is always of the same nature. Each blow struck against local self-sufficiency, pride and love of place weaves another thread into the pattern which has been developing for centuries, and which is almost complete now in most affluent countries.
Wendell Berry’s 1980 essay “Family Work” is a short meditation on the meaning of home, its disintegration under the pressures of modernity, and how it might, to some degree at least, be restored. Like so much of Berry’s work, it locates the centrepoint of human society in the home, and explains many of the failures of contemporary Western — specifically American — society as a neglect of that truth. The home, to Wendell Berry, is the place where the real stuff of life happens, or should: the coming-together of man and woman in partnership; the passing-down of skills and stories from elders; the raising and educating of children; the growing, cooking, storing and eating of food; the learning of practical skills, from construction to repair, tool-making to sewing; the conjuration of story and song around the fire.
In my lifetime, in my part of the world, the notion and meaning of ‘home’ has steadily crumbled under external pressure until it is little more than a word. The ideal (post)modern home is a dormitory, probably owned by a landlord or a bank, in which two or more people of varying ages and degrees of biological relationship sleep when they’re not out being employed by a corporation, or educated by the state in preparation for being employed by a corporation. The home’s needs are met through pushing buttons, swiping screens or buying-in everything from food to furniture; for who has time for anything else, or has been taught the skills to do otherwise?
Even back in 1980, Berry recognised that the home had become an “ideal” rather than a practical reality — precisely because the reality had been placed out of reach for many. What killed the home? Three things, said Berry: cars, mass media and public education. The first meant that both work and leisure could, for the first time in history, happen a long way from home. The second — “TV and other media” — have played a role, since the mid-20th century, in luring us all into a fantasy world of freedom from obligation, and a limitless, fun consumer lifestyle. “If you have a TV,” writes Berry, “your children will be subjected almost from the cradle to an overwhelming insinuation that all worth experiencing is somewhere else and that all worth having must be bought.” Finally, the school system is designed “to keep children away from the home as much as possible. Parents want their children kept out of their hair.” Schools exist to train children to fit into individualistic, consumer societies; to internalise and normalise their ethics and goals, and to prepare for a life serving their needs.
What could we add to this list now? Supermarkets, for one, and the whole panoply of long-distance shopping and global supply chains that go along with them. Back in 1980, it can’t have been common to buy avocadoes in winter in the northern hemisphere, let alone endless streams of screen-based gadgets put together by slave labour in China.
We could add “careers” too: and perhaps this is the main culprit. What the Luddites called the “factory system” (we should maybe call it the “office system” now that all the factories have been shipped off to China) was the main reason that the home was broken into in the first place. The pre-modern home was, as few homes are today, a workplace. The Luddites, to stick to my example, were handloom weavers running literal cottage industries, and their rebellion against the rise of industrial capitalism was a rebellion in defence of the home as a place of work as well as domesticity. That work was shared by men and women, who would both have their domestic spheres of influence whatever the particular business of the home was.
In this sense there is a case to be made that the pre-modern woman, working in her home with her husband and family, had in some ways more agency and power than her contemporary counterpart whose life is directed from outside the home by distant commercial interests. Certainly the feminist movement, in at least some of its iterations, has been thoroughly hijacked by capitalism. The “liberation” of women has often translated into the separating of women from their self-sufficiency, as men were separated before them, and their embedding instead into the world of commerce, whether they want it or not.
My point is not that women should get back into the kitchen: it is that we all should. Modernity prised the men away from the home first, as the industrial revolution broke their cottage industries and swept them into the factories and mines, where their brute strength could be useful. Later the women, who had been mostly left to tend the home single-handedly, were subject to the same process. The needs of business were sold to both sexes as a project of “liberation” from home, family and place.
The reason this happened is clear enough. Making a home requires both men and women to sacrifice their own desires for that of the wider family — but this kind of sacrifice does not feed the monster. Only by unmooring the human being from his or her roots in community and place can the emancipated individual consumer and self-creator be born. Only by promoting the fulfilment of individual desire as the meaning of a human life, can the selflessness that we once prized as a cultural ideal be transmuted into the selfishness that capitalism needs to thrive. Liberation and profit, as ever, prove a seamless fit.
Maybe this is all misplaced nostalgia; or at least, the shutting of the stable door long after the horse has been turned into dogmeat. Perhaps people leave homes, or don’t make them, because they just don’t want them much anymore. Maybe we are all loving our liberation. When I was a teenager, I certainly wanted to escape my family and its values — and I did in the end. But I suppose I always assumed there would be something to come back to. That I in my turn would grow up to be the thing that was pushed out of the way so that the world could be opened up before the young. This is how it should be, after all.
But I wonder if we can make those assumptions now. I wonder especially if young people can. How does it feel to grow up in a society whose young can barely afford anywhere to live, let alone dream of owning a family home? With a generational fear of the future which leads increasing numbers not to want families at all? With everything pointing, always, towards movement away, towards not looking back, towards progress? I don’t know, but I know it’s not easy.
The loss of the security of a home is, in some way, the loss of the heart of things. But also — and here comes the good news — the war against home manifests on the human scale, which means we can reverse it, at least to some degree, under our own steam. In these times, any blow struck for the survival, or the revival, of the home and the family is an act of resistance and of rebuilding.
Back in 1980, Wendell Berry ended his essay by suggesting some actions that could be taken in this direction. As well as the obvious — “get rid of the television set” took pride of place — he suggested that we should “try to make our homes centres of attention and interest”; to make them as productive and nurturing as we can. Once you rid yourself of the propaganda of the corporate media-entertainment complex (“a vacuum line, pumping life and meaning out of the household”), you will see new possibilities begin to open up. You will see, in Berry’s words, that “no life and no place is destitute; all have possibilities of productivity and pleasure, rest and work, solitude and conviviality that belong particularly to themselves”, whether in the country, the city or the suburb. “All that is necessary,” he suggests, is “the time and the inner quietness to look for them.”
The “all” in that sentence is doing quite a lot of work — more than ever, perhaps, 40 years on. Time and inner quietness are hard to find, now; but perhaps they always were. Even so, they are worth searching out. Home work is, perhaps, the most important work of all, and it will certainly teach you things. Since we moved to our place eight years ago, I’ve learned — sometimes from choice, sometimes from necessity — a whole suite of new skills, from construction to tree planting, chicken-keeping to breadmaking, hedging to unblocking drains. I’ve learned how to know my neighbours properly, how to stay in a place and begin to really understand it. The choice to homeschool our children has changed our lives and theirs. Certainly our children, in their early- and nearly-teens, are more self-sufficient already than I was by the age of about 25.
Home-making, it turns out, is not something to flee from in pursuit of freedom, as I wanted to do when I was younger. It is a skill, or a whole set of them: a set I have come to value maybe above anything else I do. I am still not very good at it; but even so I feel, on my best days, that I could walk with some of my ancestors and be recognised by them as a fully-qualified human being. Maybe this will turn out to be my greatest achievement, in the end.
A longer version of this essay first appeared at The Abbey of Misrule.